Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Fall of Hyperion (A Review)

But could love - simple, banal love - explain the so-called anthropic principle which scientists had shaken their collective heads over for seven centuries and more - that almost infinite string of coincidences which had led to a universe that had just the proper number of dimensions, just the correct values on electron, just the precise rules for gravity, just the proper age to stars, just the right prebiologies to create just the perfect viruses to become just the proper DNA - in short, a series of coincidences so absurd in their precision and correctness that they defied logic, defied understanding, defied, and even defied religious interpretation. Love?

Dan Simmons's The Fall of Hyperion - second book in the Hyperion Cantos tetrology that began with Hyperion - is a deeply complex and panoramic take on humanity, artificial intelligence, love, hate, time, metaphysics, and divinity. I would compare it to Isaac Asimov's "The Last Question." First published in 1956, this short story tells of a computer called Multivac and its relationship to humanity over the course of ten trillion years. In seven separate historic epochs, beginning with 2061, Multivac is asked if it is possible to reverse entropy and prevent the inevitable heat death of the universe. The answer is the same every time: "THERE IS AS YET INSUFFICIENT DATA FOR A MEANINGFUL ANSWER." In the final scene, the ethereal descendants of Man have coalesced into a single collective consciousness that spans all the cosmos. As the universe slows to a stop and stars die, Man asks Cosmic AC - Multivac's equally god-like successor - that same question one last time: "AC, is this the end? Can this chaos not be reversed into the Universe once more? Can that not be done?" Long after space, time, matter, and energy have collapsed, AC finally has an answer, but no one left to tell, since Man and AC had long ago merged into one being. There are no questions left except this one, and AC decides to respond with a demonstration.
The consciousness of AC encompassed all of what had once been a Universe and brooded over what was now Chaos. Step by step, it must be done.


And there was light -

In The Fall of Hyperion, however, the ties between humanity and the super-evolved AI's of the TechnoCore is not nearly so cordial; nor is God necessarily so artificial.

The Fall of Hyperion opens at a gathering of the Hegemony of Man power elite as they celebrate the launch of the armada that will go to war with the Ousters, a mysterious group of humans who left the Hegemony to travel the stars. Meanwhile, the six pilgrims are where the previous book left them on the planet Hyperion, exploring the Time Tombs and seeking the Shrike, also called the Lord of Pain, who will grant one of them a wish and impale the others to its "tree of thorns" for an eternity of suffering. Much of the narrative will be from the point of view of Joseph Severin, a "cybrid" recreation of the poet John Keats whose body is physically identical to that of Keats and whose implanted memories are based on Keats's poetry and biography. The first Keats retrieval persona, known as Johnny, had buried his consciousness in a microchip embedded in Brawne Lamia, one of the pilgrims, which gives Severin the ability to witness the real-time events on Hyperion via his dreams. His official purpose as an artist is to document the behind-the-scenes events for posterity; in reality, Hegemony CEO Meina Gladstone is aware of his connection to Hyperion and needs him to keep her informed.

The ensuing events are so multilayered and intertwining, and not to mention intellectually challenging, that upon finishing the book I was left with a jumble of impressions that I understood intuitively but have a difficult time articulating. To put it simply: the Hegemony has a symbiotic relationship with the TechnoCore, a race of sentient AI's who have since formed their own culture yet continue to assist humanity by maintaining the Farcaster network (an instantaneous transport system between planets that also doubles as an interplanetary Internet) and advising the Hegemony government. The Farcasters are the backbone of the Hegemony, whose citizens also have cerebral implants that allow them to access its datasphere. This relationship has come at a price, however, one that long ago led the Ousters to look upon the TechnoCore with revulsion and flee "civilized" space. Namely: Hegemony culture is wholly dependent upon the Core and has subsequently sacrificed humanity's innate capacity for innovation and exploration, becoming stagnant and decadent as a result. But Gladstone and a select few others (including Lamia's late father, a senator) are secretly aware of a yet more ominous side to the Core, one that has caused Gladstone to fervently encourage the war with the Ousters in a Machiavellian (and rather Palpatine-esque) attempt to liberate her people.

Without going into too much detail (because a full synopsis of the novel's plot would be about ten pages long), the pilgrims on Hyperion end up separated and forced to confront their own fates alone. Meanwhile, Hyperion had also introduced three factions within the TechnoCore Megasphere who were at odds with one another over how to proceed with "Ultimate Intelligence" project and also what to do about humanity. There are the Stables, who wish to maintain the status quo between humanity and the Core and who oppose the UI mission; the Ultimates, who care only for the development of the UI and will sacrifice themselves in the process; and the Volatiles, who support the UI project and believe humanity is dangerous and obsolete. It turns out that the Volatiles are behind many of the galaxy-shaking events now taking place, but they nevertheless fear Hyperion and the pilgrims because they are a "random variable" that makes predicting the outcome of their plans impossible. There was apparently a battle sometime in the distant future between the Core's UI and a purely metaphysical God formed within the foam of the quantum fluctuations that bind the universe together.
If the TechnoCore AI exists as rats in the walls of the Hegemony's house, then our once and future humankind God will be born in the atoms of wood, in the molecules of air, in the energies of love and hate and fear and the tide pools of sleep . . . even in the gleam in the architect's eye.
Or: Masamune Shirow's visionary manga Ghost in the Shell, which also grapples with precisely these questions of humanity and the evolution of life and artificial intelligence, puts it this way:
"What, Kusanagi, should a specific net do in order to avoid catastrophe and preserve a state of equilibrium?"

"Well...[one] possibility is to establish an internal division of labor – to subdivide and become multi-functional, and thus be capable of surviving a variety of catastrophes... Just as life has evolved from single-cell structures to multi-function, multi-cell structures. So the copies generate more copies, and the more they increase, the less the chance of catastrophe. Eventually a parallel, multi-layered universe-image would be created. From sgut to bosons and fermions... gravity and a strong mutual interaction, etcetera, continually divide... components creating protons and nuclei creating atoms... Cells and organisms in individual life-forms, multiple species in ecosystems...

"[. . .] In other words, fluctuations at the lower levels are what prevent a 'hardening of the arteries' on the upper levels... 'Hardening of the system'... On the surface 'entropy' would seem to represent a system of 'stability,' but in 'systems where there is little change and little flux' there is actually an increased possibility of catastrophe. Such systems are therefore truly unstable...

"The network is cosmic in size, and has infinite depth. It's like a growing tree. . ."

Both Simmons and Shirow see life, whether biological or cybernetic, as a continuous act of improvement and evolution - as a shift from one phase to another. It is for this reason that the cultural stagnancy and death of learning within the Hegemony is so horrendous. As Shirow has stated, a system in which nothing changes is inherently unstable and bound to collapse. Here, the "lower level" (humanity) is prevented from growing in knowledge and ability, which occludes the development of a higher consciousness - consciousness being a phenomenon that occurs once a system has reached a certain level of complexity (Shirow is more explicit about this than Simmons). Ergo: Simmons's perception of humanity's God evolved from the hearts and minds of humanity itself. "Evolving as the universe evolved. Learning as the learning-parts of the universe learned. Loving as humankind loved." The pilgrim Sol Weibtraub, an elderly Jewish scholar, learns this when he sacrifices his daughter Rachel to the Shrike simply because Rachel requested it and he loves her too much to say no, and "love is as hardwired into the structure of the universe as gravity and matter/antimatter." It is also revealed that the Shrike is the creation of the machine God of the future (the UI) and sent back in time in order to lure the empathy aspect of the human God out of hiding. For it had fled the war of the titans centuries in the future and first incarnated itself in the form of John Keats, on Earth, in the early 1800s.

(This excerpt from Hyperion also touches on these concepts from the writer's perspective.)

Like I said, there's a whole lot of other stuff going on, but explaining it all would take forever. Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion are the books I wish I could have written. They are THAT beautiful, amazing, and transcendant and I want the world to read them. Dan Simmons, congratulations. You have just replaced Dean Koontz as my new favorite author of speculative fiction with a lesson.


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